When the Sci Fi Channel announced its name change to “Syfy”, many of us had a few cows. Loudly. So loudly, in fact, that Craig Engler, Sr. VP and General Manager of SciFi Digital (and @craigatscifi on Twitter, where things tend to get particularly loud) got wind of our ramblings and offered to answer any questions we may have. Craig’s a very approachable guy, and after he sent me his answers we had a very pleasant conversation, in which he said that he’d be willing to lurk around the comments thread to this post during the week, and answer some of the questions and comments you guys leave here by this Friday.
Pablo Defendini: Could you give us a quick overview of the goal of this rebrand? It’s evident that a large part of it involves having a brand that is “ownable”, that can be trademarked and deployed across media and geographic regions without fear of its being degraded into a generic adjective, but what else went into deciding to go with “Syfy” in particular, instead of a completely new name? Aside from what you’ve already discussed in your press release, what does the tag line “Imagine Greater” mean to you, personally?
Craig Engler: In addition to being able to own Syfy, there are three key reasons for the change:
1. We needed a brand that’s portable and can work in places like Netflix, iTunes and on DVRs. In those environments we can find ourselves competing for space on a text-based menu system where “sci-fi” and “Sci Fi” are indistinguishable.
2. We needed a brand that can support new businesses, like Syfy Games and Syfy Kids. (More on this one below.)
3. We needed a brand that’s seen as inclusive to potential new viewers, and a brand that reflects the broad range of imagination-based entertainment you’ll find on our network.
Changing the name entirely was certainly on the table, but we have a 16-year history in the sci-fi space and we wanted to continue to embrace our legacy and our existing audience. For us, Syfy is a way to do that.
To me, Imagine Greater is both a call to action and an invitation. I think Imagine Greater is for Syfy what Think Different is for Apple.
P.D.: How long did the incubation period for the rebrand last? In other words, how long have you guys been contemplating this switch?
C.E.: We’ve talked about changing the name since I’ve been with the network, which is more than 10 years now. That’s because the word “sci-fi” has tremendous positives for those who know and love it, but it’s a polarizing word for those who don’t. We’ve literally had people tell us they love movies like Star Wars and The Matrix but they don’t like “sci-fi.” It’s a confusing issue and one we deal with on a daily basis.
We specifically began considering Syfy about a year ago, when Michael Engleman joined the network as our new VP of Creative. It was a great time for us to get the perspective of someone new, and Michael happens to be a creative genius, which helps enormously.
P.D.: David Howe (president of SciFi) has mentioned that you guys focus-grouped the “Syfy” name with a contingent of “18-to-34 techno-savvy” individuals. Could you expand a bit on the type of research that you guys did? Was it limited to focus groups, or did you employ additional techniques?
C.E.: Syfy went through in incredibly wide range of testing, both through the considerable internal research resources we have as a TV company, and with different consulting agencies. We tested it with hardcore genre fans, casual viewers and people who don’t or rarely watch the network. We continue to test aspects of it today, and in all likelihood we’ll keep testing it for years to come, as we’ve tested Sci Fi regularly for 16 years.
P.D.: Ken Runkel has said on the Landor Associates blog that Landor (NBC/Universal’s branding consultants) had nothing to do with coming up with the name, that despite their coming up with alternatives, you decided to go with “Syfy”, which was an internally-generated term. I assume that Landor did their research, and presented you with options, and rationales as to why they thought they had better suggestions than “Syfy”. Why did you decide to not take their recommendations, or otherwise disregard these types of concerns?
C.E.: You hire a consulting agency to get an outside perspective on what you’re working on, but you don’t hire them with the idea that you’ll just do whatever they suggest. Their ideas are one factor in the equation, but there are still many other variables. In the case of Landor, the names they came up with really confirmed for us that Syfy was the best choice to meet all our goals.
P.D.: Much has been made about former SciFi Channel employee Tim Brooks’ negative comments about the way SciFi views their audience. Would you like to respond to this? What do you view the channel's core audience as?
C.E.: Tim Brooks has not worked here in about 10 years and his suggestion that we wanted to distance ourselves from an audience he called “geeks and dysfunctional, antisocial boys in their basements” is completely wrong, as well as insulting to our viewers. Syfy is meant to be inclusive, not exclusive. We’re not distancing ourselves from anyone, we’re inviting more people along for the ride.
P.D.: In your official press release, you mention that part of the rationale behind the rebrand is to create an umbrella brand that encompasses Games, Films, etc. Could you expand upon this a bit? What makes “Syfy Games” different from “SciFi Games”, especially when said out loud?
C.E.: When you go to a brick and mortar game store and browse the shelves, or visit an online retailer and sort through their collection of sci-fi games, the name Syfy will be instantly recognizable as our brand, where the name Sci Fi isn’t. Is it a sci-fi game or a Sci Fi game? We’ve already seen countless examples across all media where this confusion can exist, and those will only grow over time. These situations don’t typically arise for the spoken version of the name.
P.D.: The fan response to the branding has been less than stellar, but that’s always to be expected, to a certain degree, with big rebrandings. Were there any fears of alienating your core audience with this move, especially in light of criticism you’ve received in the past regarding the non-speculative fiction programming—such as wrestling and reality programming—that seems to occupy a substantial portion of your schedule? Do you consider the viewers who tune into BSG to be the same audience that watches WWE?
C.E.: We expected the first reaction from many people to be “why?” and “that makes no sense” when we announced the change. It’s par for the course. We actually had a much stronger online reaction to another change we announced a while back, when we said we were going to remake Battlestar Galactica, and the character of Starbuck would be a woman instead of a man. Had we only listened to the one vocal segment of our audience who hated the idea, we would never had made what some people think is one of the best sci-fi shows in history. You have to look at all the feedback you’re getting across the board and take it as a whole. Online feedback is important as long as it’s considered with all the feedback we receive, not just by itself.
In terms of Battlestar and wrestling, some viewers enjoy both of them, while others only enjoy one or the other. The same holds true when you compare dramatic shows too. Some people only like Star Trek, others only like Battlestar, some love both, and some don’t watch either. Our audience is incredibly diverse, even among core sci-fi fans, so it’s important to offer a broad range of programming. For instance, although some people don’t like reality shows, or don’t think they belong on our network, there are literally millions of people who love Ghost Hunters and thinks it’s a perfect fit for us. That’s why we have a mix of reality shows, scripted dramas, movies, fantasy sports, etc.
P.D.: Do you believe that the Syfy rebrand will draw new audiences simply by presenting a fresh face to potential viewers, but continuing to show the same type of programming, or is the rebrand a harbinger for a larger change in the format for the channel?
C.E.: This isn’t about changing our programming mix, it’s about evolving our brand to catch up with where our programming already is today. We want more people to watch and enjoy the great sci-fi shows we’re already making, and Syfy is another piece of the puzzle to help make that happen. It’s not the only piece, but it’s an important one. At the end of the day, everything works together: branding, programming, scheduling, public relations, digital, etc.
So no, the brand evolution is not a harbinger for some vastly different programming strategy.
P.D.: When the SciFi Channel launched, many viewers considered it a haven for speculative programming in general, and fans have been heartened by your syndication of shows like Star Trek, Firefly, and Sliders—shows that couldn’t find a home elsewhere. Do you still consider this part of your mission?
C.E.: Absolutely. We have a great lineup of shows on the network, from favorites like Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation to new shows like Eureka and Sanctuary. We’ve also announced three new scripted dramas that will air in the coming months, and all of them are sci-fi shows, along with TV events like Riverworld and The Phantom. We think this is a fantastic lineup of new and returning sci-fi shows, and we're developing even more for the future.
P.D.: Additionally, would you consider making offers to continue production for shows that have had amazing fan responses, but have suffered under the expectations of major network numbers, and are facing possible cancellation? For example, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is struggling for ratings on Friday nights on a major network, but its numbers compare favorably to, say, Battlestar Galactica’s numbers. Is this the type of thing you guys consider when thinking about programming? Why or why not?
C.E.: We look at all opportunities that come our way and evaluate each of them on a case-by-case basis. Some of the many things we’d consider in the case of a show coming off another network is, how would that show rate on our network vs the network it came from, how much would it cost us to make, what would we have to give up to be able to make it, how does it fit with our programming and brand strategy, what is the show’s audience demographic, etc. There are dozens if not hundreds of variables that go into any decision about any show, which is true for all TV networks. Behind the scenes it’s an intensely complicated and comprehensive process.
P.D.: Going forward, it’s perfectly clear that the future of television is not in the linear, scheduled, geographically limited channel model. More and more, people are consuming their television a la carte, through iTunes, Hulu, or—when offered no compelling alternatives—through torrents. While this does greatly upset a traditional network’s apple cart, and it presents some serious challenges to the way that television networks have traditionally operated, it also offers great opportunities for dedicated producers to create highly targeted, niche-specific programing, at much higher efficiencies that the current general broadcast model. How do you see Syfy adapting to the realities of the changing media landscape?
C.E.: We’re continually adapting to it, and this week’s launch of the Caprica pilot on DVD and iTunes is a great example of how we’re experimenting with changing the existing model. We’re making a TV show that’s not launching until 2010 and yet here we are in 2009 and we’ve put the pilot out there for all to see. We think it’s a great way to build buzz for the series and get initial reactions to the show.
It’s important to keep in mind that cable TV is doing tremendously well right now, and in 2008 Sci Fi had its best year ever both on air and online. All of these changes bring with them new opportunities, and Syfy is about helping us take advantage of the new TV landscape so we can grow beyond No. 5. As great as No. 5 is, we think a network with a lineup that includes some of the best sci-fi series on TV can and should be No. 1.